By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM Contributor
PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Perhaps those money guys back in Chicago will pick up the phone now.
Not that it makes any difference to Kevin Streelman. Six years into his PGA TOUR sojourn, he’s been financially secure for a while now.
But as the Chicagoland native soaked up Sunday’s two-shot triumph at the Tampa Bay Championship presented by EverBank, there were moments of reflection on the twists and turns that ultimately led to his first TOUR victory.
“It just shows you [what happens with] determination and hard work,” Streelman said. “Keep chasing your dreams and you never know what’ll happen.”
It’s a chase that took Streelman across the Dakotas Tour, the Gateway Tour, the Hooters Tour and a couple of others before finding his stride. He burned through three cars, logging close to 400,000 miles in the process.
“It wasn't too long ago I was in a car driving myself around, dead broke,” Streelman said.
Before Sunday, Streelman’s biggest claim to fame on the PGA TOUR had been winning the inaugural Kodak Challenge – that competition that made a “round” of some of the circuit’s most scenic holes.
Heck, it was just seven days earlier that Streelman had found himself in a South Florida emergency room, suddenly unable to keep his food down. “I didn’t really feel good until Thursday,” he said.
By the weekend, though, he held steadiest against whatever obstacles were thrown in front of competitors – whether a measurably tougher Innisbrook Copperhead layout or Boo Weekley’s out-of-the-blue 63 Sunday that threatened to usurp the trophy.
Streelman, 34, went bogey-free over his final 37 holes, and never seemed in danger of a bogey after holing out a 50-yard chip on Sunday’s third hole.
That drew him even with the just-finished Weekley, a deadlock that lasted until Streelman’s aggressive 5-iron at the par-3 13th set up the go-ahead birdie. Another birdie at the par-3 17th provided the final cushion.
“I was at peace for most of the day,” Streelman said. “We just tried to let go of the results and try to make good swings all day. ... To go bogey-free on this course for the weekend is something I’m pretty proud of.”
Said Weekley: “My hat’s off to Streelman. He brought it to the house and played well. First victory – I’m happy for him.”
The breakthrough came in Streelman’s 153rd PGA TOUR start. Before Sunday, he’d never even had a runner-up finish.
He did hold the 54-hole lead at the 2010 Puerto Rico Open, but a final-round 73 left the opening for Derek Lamely’s 66 to chase him down from the middle of the tee sheet.
Weekley’s 63 – two shots better than anyone else all week – had the potential to create similar heartache. But Streelman hardly gave it any attention.
“I kind of saw it at [No.] 8, but I didn’t know if he was done yet,” he said. It wasn’t until the middle of the back nine, having already moved to 9-under, that Streelman realized Weekley was in the clubhouse.
A decade ago, Streelman caddied weekends at Scottsdale’s illustrious Whisper Rock Golf Club, whose members include Phil Mickelson, Geoff Ogilvy, Aaron Baddeley, Paul Casey and Martin Kaymer.
It was the young pro’s way of working himself out of his financial straits. After graduating from Duke, he took some lumps in his first few ventures out on the minitours.
In 2002, he left Chicago for Arizona to play the newly formed Gateway Tour. “I don’t know if I made a cut,” he recalled. “Got my butt kicked. Lost all my money.”
A year later, he was in California when he was abandoned by the men back home who had been bankrolling his venture.
“To this day, they have not picked up the phone,” Streelman said. Fortunately, he had the card of a California investor who got him through the rest of the year.
That was also about the time he applied for an assistant coach’s job at his alma mater, but lost out in the final cut. But he also had Monday qualified for the Western Open, where his locker was placed next to then-Masters champion Mike Weir.
They played a practice round together, where Streelman came to a couple of realizations.
“He’s much better than I am,” Streelman thought, “but I think I can hang. And it kind of really gave me that kind of kick in the butt to say if you’re going to do this, you need to get serious about it.”
It took time, but Streelman’s breakthrough came in 2007 when he collected four wins across two minitours and earned his PGA TOUR card.
As a rookie, Streelman was invited to join Whisper Rock. Months later, he captured the club championship. “Went from caddie to club champion at Whisper Rock, which is a pretty cool story,” he said.
Cooler yet is that he’s now joined all those big names as a PGA TOUR winner.
“People always ask you, ‘Have you won yet?’“ Streelman said. “It’s not going to change who I am. It’s just something to put on a resume. It’s really nothing more than that.”
Sometimes it’s the journey that tells the bigger story.
“To get this is the culmination of a lot of a hard work, a lot of time spent late into the evening and getting up early in the morning,” he said. “It’s really a dream come true.”